The Motion Picture as Informal Education

Paul G. Cressey
Associate Director, Motion Picture Study, New York University

Among the major activities and social forces which impinge upon the life of the school child, there are few which have, even upon superficial examination, the opportunity for influence which the commercial cinema possesses. The average time spent by the city child in attending the movie would alone seem to suggest the cinema's potential influence. In the effort of Dale[1] to establish an approximation of the national cinema attendance by children and young people, he reached the conclusion that in the United States even young children from five to eight years of age now attend on the average of twenty-two times a year, and that the attendance rate of children and young people from eight to nineteen years of age makes it possible to say that a movie a week is the cinema diet for the younger members of our American society.

In the research upon motion pictures and boy life, which is at this time being completed at New York University under the directorship of Professor Thrasher, it was found that in an interstitial area in Manhattan the approximate average estimated attendance for boys from twelve to six-teen years of age was 83.4 visits a year, or 1.6 visits per week. If even the time per visit spent by the child in the motion-picture theater is restricted to two hours, it would seem that the boys in this interstitial area spend in theaters at least 166.8 hours a year. Since most children are known to remain frequently for a second showing of the photoplay it is a conservative estimate that they spend annually at least a fifth as much time at the cinema as in attending school. Nor is extensive movie attendance restricted to the

( 505) city children of interstitial areas. Although considerable statistical evidence supports the hypothesis that the highest rate of child attendance is to be found in areas of maximum congestion and poverty, it would be incorrect to assume that cinema attendance is not now a well-nigh universal practice of all classes of children and young people in our American cities.

At the same time, the opportunity to go to the movies is regarded almost universally by both children and parents as the child's natural right. Frequently, children with the tacit support of many adults have attempted to justify their truancy, their insubordinance towards strict parents, and even their petty stealing by claiming that these were the only ways by which they could "see the show." For adolescents, "going to the movies" is not only a means for self-instruction in love making, dress, and etiquette but also is a step in courtship almost universally accepted.

For adults as well the motion picture is increasingly be-coming an accepted part of their round of life; cinema attendance may have very different meanings for various individuals, yet for most the screen is in some way an integral part of their lives. Inescapable, then, is the conclusion that the cinema is not only an established institution in American communities but that "going to the movies" is rapidly becoming an American folkway as well.

The great frequency of cinema attendance by children and young people is not without its important educational effect. The motion-picture industry is clearly of that group of quasi-educational enterprises whose business by the very nature of things cannot be regarded solely from the point of view of private profit. Though organized commercially to "sell" entertainment, the motion-picture industry dispenses a great deal of informal education—general information, patterns, and not a little in the way of standards and personal ideals. That such is true cannot now be disputed. The recently published works of Blumer, Blumer and Hauser, Dale, Holaday and Stoddard, Peters, Peter-son and Thurstone, to mention but a partial list of the

( 506) contributions to the Payne Fund Studies,[2] afford ample evidence that when the child or youth goes to the movies he ac-quires from the experience much more than entertainment. General information concerning realms of life of which the individual does not have other knowledge, specific information and suggestions concerning fields of immediate personal interest, techniques of crime, methods of avoiding detection, and of escape from the law, as well as countless techniques for gaining special favors and for interesting the opposite sex in oneself are among the educational contributions of entertainment films. To be included, also, are the schemes of life, the aesthetic standards, and the personal ideals and values which are presented upon the screen and which under special circumstances, chiefly a certain few characteristic social situations, become significantly a part of the life patterns of these young people.

It should be carefully noted, however, that what is adopted from the films by children and young people is by no means uniform as to extent or content. What is taken over depends on a variety of conditioning factors, important among which are the character, temperament, and personality of the child and the nature of his varied social backgrounds represented in racial and nationality heritages, economic and occupational levels, religious experiences, and community traditions.

The educational importance of the motion picture for childhood and youth can be understood in part by reference to certain characteristics of childhood and of the cinema art. Foremost, perhaps, though so obvious that it has eluded attention, is the fact that the child and youth is at the most receptive age, is able more effectively than at any other time to assimilate in whole cloth what is presented upon the screen. He does not yet possess fully the capacity for "adult discount," he does not yet have the background by which to discredit sufficiently some motion-picture representations of life. While research findings show that what

( 507) the child or youth perceives, remembers, and later utilizes from his photoplays is not at all what most adults would at first surmise, the fact remains that the young person, because of his immaturity, is very often more receptive to screen stimuli than are adults.

A second element making for the educational force of the commercial cinema is the fact that it can now benefit from its many years of experience in the production and exhibiting of films especially attractive to the immature mind and to the child. Responding constantly to reports from the box office, the motion-picture industry has been able to discover a wide variety in types of films which are financially profitable to produce and which attract quite varied audiences. Though very probably without intent and without any special pedagogical preconceptions, the motion-picture industry has actually followed the practice of producing photoplays for those of widely different cultural heritages and of varying stages of intellectual maturity. For the small children, the cinema today supplies the animated cartoon, the slapstick comedy, the animal picture, and is, in fact, beginning to build up an independent cinematic nursery lore. For those a little older, it offers the standardized cowboy or "western" film and the "episode" picture or serial, in which hero and heroine pass melodramatically through a long series of perilous and highly improbable adventures. Later the "mystery" thriller and the photoplays depicting spectacular scenes of warfare and aviation may have an especial appeal, often to be followed in turn by the "sports" pictures and by the murder and gangster films. With the growth of new interests during adolescence, the photoplay depicting love and romance and the sophisticated society picture take on meaning. These are sometimes followed by an interest in the historical drama, the travelogue, and even by an interest in the photoplay presenting a psychological or philosophical problem. For very nearly all mental ages, whatever may be the individual's chronological age, the cinema is prepared to offer attractive, interesting films. Further, in contrast to the typical public-

( 508) school system, another educational agency of major importance, the cinema's influence is not restricted in the main to children and youth who are within the ages of compulsory school laws. Through its wide range of offerings, even though moralists may doubt the influence upon character of certain photoplays, the cinema provides a diet which in part is definitely attuned to the interest and mental growth of the child, and so facilitates its own educational contribution.

The cinema, in the third place, is able through its mechanical and technical facilities to present in dynamic, living form scenes which readily appear to the child as replicas of life itself, based upon actual life situations. Made at-tractive and interest compelling by every device of plot, action, scenery, and acting, the photoplay possesses unique pedagogical advantages. It can command attention through the fact that it is "telling a story," an instructional advantage recognized even in early use of folklore and parables. By the portrayal upon the screen of life situations, which seem only more gripping than those the child himself usually experiences, the photoplay can readily confer upon its subject matter a sense of validity and definiteness not so easily obtained, perhaps, by any other method of communication or instruction. Further, the unified life situations presented in the photoplay afford a greater facility for the child of ordinary antecedents to associate himself more intimately with the life situations and characters portrayed upon the screen than is possible through a more formal agency or institution.

Herein is to be found an important aspect of the educational rôle of the cinema. The cinema is almost unique among the agencies in a community in that it presents what are interpreted as unified segments of life. Consider by contrast the conventional school. Sanctioned in public opinion and with the force of the truant officer behind it, the traditional public school has been able to continue even though, from the point of view and experience of the typical school child, it may often have seemed a disjunctive and a

( 509) repressive agent. Presenting logical, unified compartments of knowledge, which, however, may not represent at all the way in which this same information might come to have meaning for the child, the public school has often been able to continue and to gain strength because it was not forced to look to its own students for support. The cinema, how-ever, in order to survive commercially has been forced to adapt itself constantly to the immediate interests of patrons. In its programs and its advertising the cinema has found it necessary to discover the basic human motives and wishes and to produce photoplays and advertising appeals by constant reference to these dynamics. As a result, children and adults as well have, by projecting themselves into the activities and interests of the screen characters, inadvertently contacted a psychological element by which the in-formation and general knowledge incidental to the plot could readily be seen to have meaning and could, therefore, be easily retained. In contrast to the traditional school, where motivation in learning arises extraneously, primarily through the teacher's special efforts and skill, the cinema provides for many children a means, vicariously at least, by which learning may really be a natural result of interest and activity.

A fourth factor in the educational rôle of the commercial cinema can be seen in the circumstances under which the child or youth attends. At the motion-picture theater attendance is voluntary; the individual need see only those photoplays which seem to him to be interesting and valuable. Since it is usually from the youthful patron's own funds that he is spending, of which in most cases he does not feel he has too much, there is very naturally an effort to secure the most for his money in the satisfaction of immediate interests. These circumstances in turn, no doubt, contribute to the individual's receptivity at the cinema; and, in contrast with the traditional public-school system in which there is a minimum of opportunity for individualization in instruction, it is significant to note the opportunity for individual initiative and choice in self-education afforded

( 510) at the cinema. Important, also, is the relative freedom from restraint in the theater, and its physical setting contributing to maximum attention. The child, seated in a comfortable chair, and so placed that the only point of bright illumination, the animated fascinating screen, is immediately before him, is in a position to attain a high degree of concentration and learning.

Finally, the prestige of the movie stars in the child's own play world and in the urban community itself, even as much as the prestige in which they are held when seen upon the screen, contributes also to the educational influence of the cinema. On every hand the city child meets this screen world. Even though he may not attend the cinema the urban youth ,is constantly exposed to ideas, patterns, and suggestions which have their origin in Holly-wood. If the child plays with others his games are most certainly to include "cowboys and Indians," "cops and robbers"; and, very probably, he will be expected to make the American Indian's smoke signals, as was shown in the previous week's edition of a movie serial, or to throw a lasso in the manner seen in a recent "western." The nick-names of his playmates very often include the names of movie stars or of the characters which they have portrayed. The city child is exposed to garish billboards, lobby displays, and handbills telling of forthcoming attractions in the local theaters. For a penny he may weigh himself, and on the reverse side of the card upon which his weight is printed, he may find a photograph of a movie star; from an adjoining slot machine he may obtain chewing gum endorsed by a Hollywood child star. Even his favored candy or soft drink may have endorsement by a movie star. For a few cents he can buy a fascinating photograph of an actress, or, for a penny, may secure a paper stencil by which he can tattoo upon his person a picture of his favorite actress.

Returning home the city youth finds in the daily news-paper at least a page devoted to advertisements and news items concerning theater offerings and the doings of the

( 511) stars. Turning on the radio he may enjoy a "Half Hour in Hollywood" or may listen to any one of over two hundred popular songs, which have been introduced through re-cent musical productions. The youth, like his sister who can now equip herself from head to toe in clothing especially endorsed by actresses or modeled after clothes worn in recent photoplays, may set out upon a similar mission, buying his hats, shirts, ties, sweaters, suits, and overcoat from among those endorsed by movie actors or fashioned according to a special design popularized by them.

In a variety of ways, through the screen, through the play world of childhood, and through countless commercial devices Hollywood has in one way or another become intimately associated with some of the most vital interests and activities of childhood and youth. Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Harold Lloyd, James Cagney, Edward G. Robin-son, and George Raft, to mention but a few from the list of favorites furnished by the boys and young men studied in the New York University research, have far greater prestige and, in the activities and thought of these young people, in many cases mean far more than do all the local political, educational, and social leaders whose activities have direct bearing upon their lives.

The full significance of the cinema, however, cannot be seen except by reference to the specific social backgrounds of each individual. Only as it is possible to see the motion picture's impressions in terms of his own cultural heritages, his own dominant interests and values, and his own axeological world can we begin to see adequately what any photo-play may mean for a spectator. In fact, much confusion in the past over the problem of the cinema's influence upon children has arisen because of the failure to see the motion picture in terms of the total social background of the individual. By reference to an interstitial community in New York City in which a great deal was known of boy life through the Boys' Club Study of New York University, the research on motion-picture influence now being completed has been able to see the cinema in this community

( 512) in terms of its social rôle. From the broader perspective upon each case which this approach makes possible, it appears that there are certain special social situations in which the cinema can be seen to have a much greater influence than in others.

Among these special situations, few stand out as of such importance as the period of adolescence, during which the youth's sensitiveness, self-consciousness, and social uncertainty facilitate his receptivity to the cinema. For such young people the motion picture's portrayal of attractive adults of both sexes provides a ready basis for the acquisition of personality patterns, standards of dress and con-duct, and even philosophies and schemes of life. In the following stenographically recorded interview, which is but one illustration of a great amount of case material which could be offered if space permitted, an adolescent youth in New York City indicates the way in which the screen and. its portrayals have become a part of himself:

Q. These notions of going after women, where did you get them?

A. Yes, that has been a specialty of mine.

Q. Yes, I know, but where?

A. A lot from the movies and a lot from experience.

Q. What sort of thing from the movies?

A. Never chase after women; let them chase you, show that you are intelligent and leave them. Personality, be dynamic, never humble your-self before them. Of course, I've done that too.

Q. Is that where human nature slips in?

A. Yes, you can't pass that up, you have to humble yourself some-times.

Q. Certain pictures (you say) give you those ideas?

A. A lot of pictures. George Raft is a typical example. Warren William is a good example, John Barrymore is a perfect example; you never see them chasing them (the women). I have taken the ideas of these big stars. I have never been interested in these younger stars. They are not mature, they are silly. Ronald Colman in Cynara; I have seen a great deal of them. I see the way he does not give the girl a tumble. He does not give them a tumble, they go after him. Clark Gable has given me an inspiration.

Q. How?

A. I like his manner of speaking lines, you know that mannishness. "How do you do?" Just like that, sweep them off their feet. . . .

Q. This idea, of being suave about it all, where did you get that idea?

A. I have always wanted to be that way.

Q. Do you remember the first time?


A. John Barrymore a long time ago gave me that idea, he has been in the movies quite a while.

Q. What was the name of the picture?

A. I think it was Don Juan. Ever since then I wanted to be the perfect-lover type. I got the dark eyes. Usually lovers have dark eyes. Husbands have blue eyes, I have been compared to a few. One girl thought I looked like George O'Brien. Another thought I looked like Fredric March. I went to a dance once and one cute little girl kept calling me Gary Cooper. . . .

Another social situation in which the cinema would seem to have an exceedingly great influence is that in which the American-born child of immigrant parents feels a conflict within himself between the old-world patterns inculcated and sponsored by his parents and the standards to which he is exposed in his contacts at school, on the job, and on. the playgrounds, and which he often thinks of as "American." Especially where the other agencies and institutions in a young person's life do not adapt themselves adequately to his psychological and cultural situation, the cinema may very well be, and, in fact, often is, the refuge to which the individual goes to discover that which he considers is really "American." His preference as to actors and photoplays, as well as his adoption of standards and patterns of behavior which he sees on the screen, reveal subtly but effectively the way in which he identifies himself with the actors and characters seen upon the screen.

In an interstitial community with relatively high delinquency rates, and in which the child and youth on the street are exposed to contradictory patterns of life, it is clear also that a photoplay which by some chance "strikes fire" with a certain individual may be, for the time, a paramount influence in his life. Thus, a few outstanding gangster characters in the photoplays of recent years have been found to have exerted a very great influence over certain boys and young men. In a few instances, the entire personality of certain individuals has seemed to change as a result of seeing certain gangster pictures. But in these cases it is really a combination of many factors which contributes to their exceptional receptivity to the screen. It should be noted that it is the presence in certain photoplays, of a gripping

( 514) portrayal of specific human interests, activities, or values closely associated with the major dynamics in the subject's own life and his own community backgrounds which make it possible for them to "strike fire." Thus, photoplays involving crime and gangs may be expected to have a greater appeal to certain boys in a high delinquency area than to others in the same area or to boys residing on Park Avenue or Riverside Drive. Because they do relate themselves so intimately to the personal problems of such individuals, living in a social milieu affording an opportunity for a maximum range of choice in conduct, and because they possess the special validity and prestige accredited to the screen, the photoplays under these circumstances, and under these circumstances only, may become a definite and immediate factor in conduct.

In a social situation of the above type the cinema may exert its influence upon receptive individuals in many ways. It may contribute not only a knowledge of techniques of crime, extortion, and seduction, but it may furnish suggestions which eventuate in conduct. In the same way, a delinquent may on occasion find in certain photoplays schemes of life and values by which he may formulate more definitely his own philosophy of life and his own life pat-tern. These conclusions are based upon extensive re-searches.[3]

The relationship of the commercial cinema to the school and to educational policies, in the light of the new data which are now available, has yet to be determined. With the educational contribution of the commercial motion picture not yet recognized in the thought of most educators, it would be impossible to expect that school programs and the practices of teachers would yet have been modified in relationship to the cinema. For the most part, the incipient attitude of school and teacher has probably been one of antagonism. Actually, the cinema is here to stay and it is well that the school adopt a more enlightened attitude towards it. It is interesting that in a high school

( 515) in an eastern city, where the teacher of a trade course recently reversed her official attitude and allowed her girl students to introduce pertinent comments regarding movie actresses, and even permitted a judicious use of the fan magazines, a marked improvement in classroom morale and in the interest of the students resulted.

In the beauty-culture course the girls were continually bringing in movie magazines which they read surreptitiously at every chance I gave them. One girl, whose family I knew were receiving public relief, nevertheless felt she too must have her movie magazines and must be able to go weekly to the neighborhood theater. I even had to punish some of the girls for reading the magazines when they should have been studying.

Later one day I happened to see a picture of an actress which illustrated a coiffure about which I was speaking. This was the beginning of a new policy. I found that a discussion of the hairdress of actresses aided greatly in interesting the girls. Today there is a much better morale in the group and a much more cordial attitude towards me.[4]

This is but one illustration of countless ways by which the school, in its policies and practices, could recognize and adjust its program to a situation which already exists. It is also possible for the school, through motion-picture appreciation courses and other ways, to exert a positive influence in the child's selection and response to photoplays. The developing movement for "Better Films Committees" in local communities requires integration with school pro-grams. The wider use of motion pictures in school pro-grams and as aids in visual instruction represents a tremendous field for educational advance and coördination.


  1. Edgar Dale, Children's Attendance at Motion Pictures (to be published by The Macmillan Company this year).
  2. From the Motion Pictures and Youth Series, The Macmillan Company.
  3. These data will be available in a book by Paul G. Cressey and Frederic M. Thrasher, Boys, Movies, and City Streets (to be published by The "Macmillan Company).
  4. Interview with trade-school teacher.

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